Belgium: general strike planned for Friday over pension reforms

United union action needed to win

Anger over a new pension scheme proposed by the Belgian federal government will lead to the paralysing of the country from Friday 7 October onwards. On that day, the social democratic union federation (ABVV/FGTB), organising over 1.3 million workers, calls for a 24-hour general strike. Three days later there will be another general strike called by the Christian union federation (ACV/CSC), organising over 1.6 million workers, and the liberal union (ACLVB/CGSLB), organising over 0.4 million workers.

The debate over pensions has been going on for over two years now. Only 29% of people between 55 and 64 years are working in Belgium, compared to an average of 44% in the 15 European Union countries. At the same time, only 35% of those between 15 and 24 years old are working compared to 47% in the rest of the EU. This is unacceptable for the bosses and their political representatives. They claim it threatens the future of our social system. The fact that Belgian pensions are already amongst the lowest in Western Europe, they say, is due to the fact that the active population is outnumbered by those inactive.

Statistics however refute those arguments. The social security budget had a surplus in 18 of the past 25 years. In the same period, the national authorities’ share of social security income was reduced from 35% in 1980 to a meagre 11% this year. During the past 5 years the government plundered social security by handing over 5 billion euros of social security dues to the bosses in the hope they would create jobs that never came. Nevertheless social security remained financially balanced. The expenses for pensions have actually decreased over the past 25 years from 5.4% to 5.2% of GDP. Total social expenses only increased during the same period from 16.2% to 16.7% of GDP despite, more expensive health care and a dramatic increase in unemployment.

The bosses insist that a higher participation in the labour market for elderly people does not mean a higher degree of unemployment for youth, as the unions claim. They refer to Sweden and the Netherlands to prove their point. In both cases, more elderly people and more young people are actively working. However, these are part-time, temporary, extreme "flexible" and unstable jobs. In the Netherlands, the number of working poor has been growing dramatically over the past years.

The government proposes a whole range of measures. In the main, they aim for more flexible jobs for youth and a strong limitation of the early pension systems. They also propose to extend the possibility to combine a legal pension with income from labour and they aim to gradually increase the age limit for early retirement.

Work exhaustion

Many working people are already exhausted by the ever increasing pressure of work. Early pensions are about the only way to escape complete exhaustion. Moreover, the bosses use early pension schemes to soften the effect of restructuring and closures. For the middle layer union officials it is often the only means to avoid having to launch a battle against sackings. For them, the government proposals are shutting off any means to avoid struggle. This explains a near revolt in the ranks of union officials at the Federal Bureau of the social democratic union. The top officials were forced to concede a one day general strike, which was promptly leaked to the press by the metal-union leader. He is a prominent right winger who recalled the real meaning of the government’s proposals when rumours circulated this summer over a possible closure of the VW car plant in Brussels that employs 7,000 workers. Without a social plan, including a system for early pensions, union leaders like him fear every major restructuring in industry would lead to an open battle.

Under pressure from the rank and file, and probably also to test the mood, sector trade union officials and the trade unions were forced to organise some bigger meetings. In Antwerp, about 400 militants from different sectors were assembled. There was a combative mood, led by rank and file convenors, mainly from the chemical industry and the employees’ union. In Gent, 300 militants met and again the mood was very combative.

It seems the top officials aimed to demoralise the rank and file by calling a strike before even taking the time to explain the challenge and without officially inviting the Christian union, which until then had been more active over the pension debate. This is mainly because the Christian Democratic Party is in opposition, while the social democrats are part of the federal government. Everybody in Belgium knows it is impossible to stop those proposals if one of the two major unions is standing aside.

The union officials, however, miscalculated the opposition. All sector unions are really starting to mobilise, something we didn’t see since the previous general strike, in 1993, when the unions lost control over the movement for several weeks. The Christian trade union is officially awaiting further negotiations but threatens a general strike on Monday 10 October. It is generally expected many members of the Christian union and of the liberal union will participate in the strike this coming Friday. The Christian union had to come out with a declaration that they understand their members will be sympathetic to the strike, on Friday. They promised to pay strike money to those Christian union members on strike on that day.

In some major plants, such as Beckaert, the unions came out together with a call for strike on both days. In Bayer-Antwerp, the union delegations will also produce a common leaflet. It seems the union officials started a process that will lead further than they originally aimed for. The government proposals are applicable to the private sector and not yet to the 800,000 strong public workforce. But public sector unions are nevertheless actively mobilising for the strike.

It is not completely excluded the union officials will still cancel the strike, but it seems more and more unlikely. If the strike on Friday is a success, which is probable, it will become virtually impossible for the Christian union not to take action next Monday unless the government makes major concessions. As if this was not enough, the railway unions announced another strike on October 11th, and the hospitals in Brussels and the Walloon area will strike on the 13th. Both are calling their members also to follow the calls for Friday and Monday.

Government may fall

The fate of the federal government hangs by a thread. It will probably hold out until after the strikes but then collapse a few weeks later, officially over a dispute concerning night flights over Brussels. The favoured formula to replace the current government is a "roman-red" coalition of social and Christian democrats. For the ruling class this government would have a more stable base, given its links with the union officials, to carry through its neo-liberal agenda. The only factor standing in the way of a collapse of the government, and early elections, is a recent scandal in the Walloon area involving the current Prime Minister of the regional government, a well known leader of the Walloon social democratic party.

A "roman-red" coalition already exists in the Walloon area where it applies similar policies to the ones proposed by federal government. Many workers are already conscious over the nature of such a coalition.

In this sense it will be important to discuss how to continue after the strikes. The pension proposals will appear again and again, maybe after some marginal changes. Workers will have to be vigilant; they will have to start linking up on a rank and file base, to keep up pressure. During this strike LSP/MAS, the Belgian section of the CWI, will build a network of trade union militants around its intensive trade union work. We will also advance the need for a political alternative to the neo-liberal agenda, involving the necessity to break the links between our unions and the social democratic and Christian democratic parties. We will argue for the need for a new workers’ party independent of the ruling class. We will propose a bold socialist programme as the basis for discussion.

The LSP/MAS will participate fully in the coming strikes. We will be present in twenty different areas throughout the country, and at the most important picket lines. Picket lines need to be strong and also, in some cases, striking workers should discuss spontaneous marches to workplaces where the strike is weaker.

We call for regional and work place meetings to discuss the government’s proposals. As one convenor, and member of LSP, told union officials in a meeting, "It’s good to have organised big meetings to discuss the attitude in the negotiations. We hope we’ll get a similar chance before final decisions are taken."

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